Down the Malay Barrier 1.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they simultaneously attacked the Americans in the Philippines, the British in Malaya, and the Dutch in the Dutch East Indies (what is today Indonesia).  Japanese naval air forces also raided Darwin in northern Australia.  Early Japanese victories drove Allied forces back toward Burma in the north, the Dutch East Indies in the west, and northern Australia.  Desperate efforts were made to hold this “Malay Barrier.”

Today the region is home to growing economies, societies under stress, Islamic radicalism, and crime.  What would a traveler see moving from Bangladesh to Darwin?

The city of Jakarta, Indonesia proper has a population of something over 10 million people, but the larger metropolitan area has a population of 30 million people.  A lot of people produce a lot of trash.  Much of the trash from Jakarta—7,000 tons a day–ends up in nearby Bekasi.[1]  A daily stream of 1,000 trucks dump their daily loads onto a 150 acre one-time rice field.  They’ve been at this for thirty years, so the loads have accumulated into a plateau dotted with hills.  Those hills can temporarily rear up as high as 150 feet until bull-dozers working ‘round-the-clock level them down into another layer of the plateau.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and not just for the company that runs the dump.  Many villages surround the mountain of trash.  Most of the villagers are immigrants, farmers who lost their land elsewhere and came to Bekasi in search of work.  They’re here because they had no other choice.  The villagers earn their living by trash-picking for anything that might have resale value.  They scramble up and down the trash piles, dodging around the bull-dozers, and loading their finds into baskets strapped to their backs.  Any plastic, metal, wood, or electronic waste can be sold to someone.  Middle men buy different types of recovered material, paying by weight.  Recycling companies buy what the middlemen purchase from the trash pickers.  Pickers can earn anywhere from $2 to $10 a day.

One kind of economy creates other ones.  Little stands sell cigarettes, and snacks and soda to trash-pickers taking a break.  Drug dealers and prostitutes meet other needs.[2]

The trash stinks, so the hundreds of trash pickers stink and so do the surrounding villages.  Flies are everywhere.  The ground water is polluted.  Working—or, in the case of children too young to work, playing—on trash leads to cuts and scrapes.  Sores, infections, and breathing problems abound.  Poor Indonesians haven’t had much contact with modern medicine.  Folk belief holds that living in these conditions strengthens the body’s immunity to disease.

The Indonesian government doesn’t do much to help to poor.  Muslim charities elsewhere pay for Koran study classes or provide scholarships for the occasional exceptionally good students to continue their education through university.  Non-profits provide other kinds of help, like additional food.

Is this an example of human triumph over difficulty or of complacent rulers ignoring inequality and suffering at their own peril?

[1] Aleasha Bliss, “Bantar Gebang: Trials and Tribulations of Indonesia’s “Trash Heroes”,” Jakarta Globe, 8 February 2019; Adam Dean and Richard C. Paddock, “Picking Plastic, Metal, and Bones from a Trash Tower,” NYT, 28 April 2020.

[2] See: Richard Davies, Extreme Economies: What Life at the World’s Margins Can Teach Us About Our Own Future (2020).

ChiMerica 4 18 May 2020.

For decades, both foreign policy experts and business leaders saw China in a favorable light.  They expounded their views to American voters.  Opening China to capitalism and world markets would integrate the Asian giant into the global economy to the benefit of all.  At the same time, capitalism would raise billions out of poverty while spawning a middle-class, the historical driver of democratization.

“Outsiders” long dissented from this “elite” view of China.  They claimed that China rigged its domestic market to exclude foreign products, subsidized Chinese companies competing on international markets, and ruthlessly stole intellectual property.  One effect came in the massive out-sourcing of American industrial jobs and manufacturing in the wake of China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).  They claimed that China remained a one-party state governed by and for the benefit of the Communist Party.  They pointed out that economic power converts readily to military power, while China advanced supposed “historical” claims to territory beyond its current borders.

Now the “elite” view has lost traction.  American public opinion has taken an increasingly critical view of the Peoples’ Republic of China.[1]  Already in 2019, under the shadow of the tariff war with the United States, the brutal repression of the Uighur minority, and the crack-down on pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong, 57 percent of Americans took an unfavorable view of China.  In February 2020, the unfavorable view had risen to 67 percent.  There is little difference between the political parties in their perception of China as a threat to American interests: 62 percent of Democrats see it that way, leaving little daylight between them and the 68 percent of Republicans who feel the same way.

As a candidate, Donald Trump loudly expounded the anti-China “outsider” view.  As President, he followed his campaign words with presidential action by slamming severe tariffs on China and harshly criticizing it behavior.  Now the United States is in the midst of a coronavirus-induced economic collapse that has undone all the progress that took place during the first Trump administration.  Now the country is desperately short of the personal protective equipment that American companies produced at home in days of yore.  Now many countries, and not merely the United States, are criticizing China for a lack of transparency in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak.

 

How vulnerable is China to external pressure?  China faces grave economic problems.   Its drive for industrialization overshot even the huge demands of domestic and export markets, leaving it saddled with excess productive capacity.  Its long construction boom has achieved the same thing in terms of office space and housing, leaving a property bubble.  Both were financed by excessive government credit channeled through banks that are now on the verge of insolvency.

As the early response to the coronavirus in Wuhan showed, the Chinese central government is hard-put to respond to a crisis because of the autonomy actually exercised by—often corrupt–local authorities.  Moreover, the claim of the Communist Party to sole authority requires that its failures be covered up.  Finally, China’s flawed economic progress has enriched the Party elite and their cronies.  Fixing problems would require painful sacrifice.[2]  For all these reasons, China is vulnerable to external pressure.

 

How wise or idiotic would it be to exert such pressure?  Anything that triggered a severe economic crisis in China would send shock waves around the globe.  Slumping Chinese production would lead to falling demand for raw materials from many countries.  For example, in 2018, China imported more than $60 billion worth of iron ore, gas, coal, agricultural, forestry and fisheries products.[3]  China is deeply entangled in global supply chains for many goods, so the markets for many Chinese products would also start to strangle.  Finally, the global financial system would suffer from the resulting global slowdown.  Thus, in the interlocked global economy, trouble in China will mean trouble everywhere else.  Furthermore, as history has shown time and again, severe economic problems have comparable political effects.  Sometimes the effects create important reforms.  Sometimes they create turmoil and crisis.  All in all, it seems better to seek a co-operative solution that addresses both the immediate crisis and the underlying problems.  That might appeal to the risk-averse, but they aren’t the only ones making decisions.

[1] Walter Russell Mead, “Trump’s Best Re-election Bet: Run Against Beijing,” WSJ, 23 April 2020.

[2] Walter Russell Mead, “China Is the Sick Man of Asia,” WSJ, 4 February 2020.

[3] See: https://asialinkbusiness.com.au/china/getting-started-in-china/chinas-imports-and-exports?doNothing=1

The Sentimental Imperialists 1 15 August 2019.

There’s this interesting book by Alan Weisman, The World Without Us (2008).  Weisman asks how long would our massive physical creations—buildings, dams, roads, tunnels—survive if humans were not constantly maintaining them?  He answers Not long at all.  Flooding, erosion, deer, those weeds that sprout through cracks in the sidewalk, would need only decades to begin erasing the human scar on the Earth.  Things that seem unimaginably durable and solid can quickly disappear.

What if we apply the same approach to political institutions?  What if we stopped maintaining them?  It wouldn’t matter much with domestic political traditions and institutions.  Those tend to be the product of long periods of development and bargaining.  They survive both triumph and disaster.  Trying to graft foreign or theoretical arrangements onto a long-existing political tradition isn’t likely to work.[1]  So, “tribes” (local identities) would survive.

But what if you apply the same approach to the cob-web of links between countries in what political scientists like to call an “international system” or “cosmopolitanism”?  There the approach seems more valid, at least at first glance.  Take Asia as an example.

China has grown into the second largest economy in the world.  Its wealth has allowed a massive military build-up and an aggressive posture in the Western Pacific.  Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has challenged the West in Eastern Europe, in the Middle East, and in the conduct of democratic elections.  North Korea’s acquisition of advanced missile technology—from whatever source—poses a grave security threat to American forces and American allies in Asia.  Meanwhile a combination of refugee problems with a revolt against the “Eurocrats” of the European Union’s “administrative state” have disabled Europe as a force in international affairs.

That’s why the “Nervous Nigels” and “sissies in striped pants”[2] who populate the diplomatic corps of many nations and of international agencies have been bleating so hard.  Where will many millions of people be without the World Health Organization, the World Agriculture Organization, or the United Nations High Commission on Refugees?  Malaria, malnutrition, and massacres, that’s where.

Normally, many people would grudgingly look to the United States for leadership in crises.  The Trump Administration’s “America First” strategy challenges this reflex.  However, there are real limits on what the United States could accomplish under any administration.  Hong Kong has been a part of China since 1997.  China claims Taiwan.  If it buckles on Hong Kong, then its future with Taiwan may be in doubt.  The Uighurs are Chinese subjects.  Kashmir is a part of India.  North Korea already has been plastered with sanctions for decades without abandoning its pursuit of nuclear weapons.  The Philippines resents the United States and forced the closure of American bases decades ago.  Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton either opposed or backed away from the Obama administration’s “Trans-Pacific Partnership.”  Loathsome person though he may be, Donald Trump isn’t far off the mark in Asia.

[1] This was the position of early 19th Century Conservatives.  You couldn’t make Britain into Prussia and you couldn’t make the Austrian empire into the United States just by writing some documents.  However, the experience of the Third Reich and its adventures proved sufficient to make Germans open to new approaches.  Which proves my point.

[2] The Economist and Franklin D. Roosevelt respectively.

Hong Kong 1 9 August 2019.

Between 1839 and 1842, Britain fought China over the opium trade.  China lost that war and the island of Hong Kong to boot.  Under British rule, Hong Kong became a major port and later a financial center.  Sometime between 1914 and 1945, Britain lost the “Mandate of Heaven.”  In 1997, Britain returned Hong Kong to the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC).  However, the agreement hedged about Hong Kong’s status to safeguard its Western-type freedoms and its economic dynamism.   The freedoms included free speech, the right to assemble, and free access to the internet.  None of these rights exist anywhere in the rest of the PRC.  Hong Kong is, in many ways, self-governing.  The return agreement pledged China to respect these terms until 2047.  The common term for this is “One country, two systems.”

Despite the promise to respect the agreement until 2047, many people in Hong Kong believe that the PRC has been slicing the salami for a while now.[1]  Both the legislature and the committee that appoints the chief executive have been slowly packed with local agents of the PRC.  The chief executive, Carrie Lam, is seen as a puppet of Beijing.  The PRC’s organs of state security have begun to operate against dissidents living in Hong Kong.  So, things are starting to look like “One country, one system.”

In February 2019, Carrie Lam, the chief executive, introduced a bill into the legislature.  It would allow the extradition of people accused of crimes to places with which Hong Kong has no extradition treaty.  One of those places, oddly, is the PRC.  Since the PRC’s security services have already kidnapped a number of people from Hong Kong, this bill looked like an attempt to neaten-up that process.

Beginning on 9 June 2019, huge numbers of Hong Kong residents took to the streets to protest against the bill.  On 12 June 2019, a few of the demonstrators threw rocks at the police; the police responded with tear gas, pepper spray, and beatings.  Nothing deterred, the demonstrations continued.  On 15 June 2019, Lam said that the extradition bill had been suspended.  She didn’t say that it had been withdrawn entirely.  That didn’t cut it with the demonstrators.  On 16 June 2019, two million of them filled the streets of Hong Kong.  They demand that the bill be formally withdrawn and that Lam resign.

More than just digging-in on the extradition bill, the demonstrators have begun to surface deeper concerns and make more sweeping demands.  It may be that the China-watchers in Hong Kong–whose own futures are on the line (unless they can get a Canadian visa)–have concluded that the PRC is not headed toward any meaningful liberalization under Xi Jinping.[2]  Increasingly, people are demanding what might be seen as a re-negotiation of the 1997 agreement.  They seem to want Hong Kong’s special status to be both perpetual and real.

This shift in the goals of the movement may have alarmed the government in Beijing.  Well it should.  Beijing’s failure to make timely concessions has allowed the movement to grow.  Well, Xi Jinping’s failure to understand the situation has allowed a crisis to occur.

[1] Daniel Victor and Alan Yuhas, “How the Demonstrations in Hong Kong Have Evolved,” NYT, 9 August 2019.

[2] Making deals with authoritarian states in the professed belief that they will move along some pre-ordained path of political development is sometimes wishful thinking.  “Nothing is written.”  This isn’t meant as a swipe at the Obama administration’s deal with Iran, which I still support.  However, John Bolton, not John Hill, is the National Security Advisor.  He has a different take on this issue.  Apparently, so do the people in Hong Kong.

Japan’s Second World War 1.

During the Meiji Restoration, many “samurai” became officers in the new national army.  They and their descendants instilled many samurai beliefs about conduct in the Imperial Japanese Army.  Sakae Oba (1914-1992)[1] did not come from a samurai background.  His father farmed.  The son graduated from a teacher’s academy in 1933, and began working in a school.  Soon he married.  Within a year, however, he applied to be an officer in the army.

The IJA recruited soldiers into locally-based regiments.  Oba became an officer in the 18th Regiment.  The 18th had fought in the Sino-Japanese (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese (1904-1905) wars.  From 1928 on, it did much of its service in China.  In 1931, Japan seized the territory of Manchuria; in 1932, Japanese and Chinese troops fought each other around Shanghai.

In July 1937, Japan launched a major invasion of China proper.  The 18th Regiment engaged in two months of savage fighting.  Oba was promoted to Second Lieutenant in late 1937.  The 18th Regiment then fought in the Japanese campaign in central China.  Possibly, the 18th Regiment took part in the terrible massacres of Chinese civilians that accompanied these operations.[2]  In 1939, he made First Lieutenant. In 1941, he received command of a company.  In 1943, he made Captain.

Japan’s war in China bogged down.  In late 1941, Japan opted for attacks on the Western possessions in the Far East.  The attack on Pearl Harbor, and the conquest of the Philippines, British Malaya and Burma, and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) followed.  By early 1944, many of the large number of troops in China began to move toward the Pacific islands that blocked the American advance on Japan.  In February 1944, an American submarine sank the troop ship carrying the 18th Regiment.  Less than half the regiment survived, but Captain Oba was among them.  The survivors were taken to the island of Saipan.  Rather than being a coral atoll, the island is mountainous and densely forests.  The Japanese saw it as part of a last line of defense against the Americans.  Oba and his men joined the garrison.

Between 15 June 1944 and 9 July, the Americans conquered Saipan.  On 7 July, most of the surviving Japanese soldiers made a “banzai charge,” rather than accept the shame of surrender.  When the attack ended, Marines and soldiers counted 4,300 dead Japanese in front of their lines.  Almost 30,000 Japanese soldiers died on Saipan, as did about 20,000 civilians.

Captain Oba and 45 of his men were among the survivors.  They gathered up several hundred civilians and headed for the woods.  Oba’s intentions appear to have been to preserve the lives of his men and to protect the civilians.  Occasionally, they staged night-raids on American positions, but these may have been chiefly attempts to acquire food and medicine.  Perhaps he had seen enough of massacres and suicides.  Despite determined searches by the Marines, Oba held out until 1 December 1945.

Oba returned to Japan, where he found his wife alive.  After the war, he worked in a department store.

[1] Don Jones, Oba: The Last Samurai (1986).  Haven’t read it; just read about Oba.

[2] These include the Nanjing Incident/Nanking Massacre.  See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanjing_Massacre  Even before the Japanese atrocities of the Second World War, these events had created in the Western mind a reputation for ferocity and bestial behavior on the part of the Japanese military.

Red Hot China 20 July 2019.

Something I wrote in early 2011, but never posted.

The good news.  China has made extraordinary progress.  Between 1980 and 2010 the Chinese economy grew at an average rate of ten percent per year.  The massive expansion of wealth and comparatively well-paid employment has lifted half a billion people out of poverty in a nation of 1.3 billion people.  China has conquered world markets in all sorts of things.  To take an extreme example, sixty percent of the clothes manufactured in the world are manufactured in China.  Ten years ago a million people graduated from university.  This year six million people graduated.

The bad news.  Progress has come at a cost.  First, China’s economic growth has been driven by exports rather than by an expansion of domestic demand.  On the one hand, this makes China’s economy highly sensitive to down-turns in the world market.  The 2008-2011 recession pushed down Chinese exports by ten percent and forced the closing of 100,000 factories (which involved laying off 30 million people).  Sustained economic growth will depend on a global economic revival.  On the other hand, wages and living standards for most Chinese remain extremely low.

Second, China’s environment has been devastated by rapid industrialization.  China has lots of coal, so it burns it for energy.  Half the rivers are severely polluted.  Drinkable water is running short.  China is home to 16 of the world’s 20 cities with the worst air quality.

Third, contemporary China resembles to 19th Century Europe: there are great and obvious disparities of wealth; poverty-stricken peasants flood into raw new cities which are unready to receive them; and an educated class is being created faster than are jobs for them to fill.

What does the future hold?  That is hard to say.  The government responded to the global recession with a stimulus plan substantially larger than the one approved by the United States (“We are all Keynesians now,” as Richard Nixon said, but apparently some are more Keynesian than others).  The government is allowing wages to rise in order to create more domestic demand and to improve living standards.  The government has announced a commitment to spending over $400 billion to develop green technologies by 2020.  At the same time, there is much discontent.[1]

The average Chinese faces a lot of insecurity.  There’s virtually no old-age pensions; the one-child policy has ended up forcing one child to care for two parents and even for four grandparents, but the kids don’t have the means or the time; private schools are much better than the public schools; public health care is lousy; there’s no unemployment insurance; there is no system of farm price supports, so price or harvest fluctuations can devastate the income of peasants.  For all these reasons, the Chinese save—rather than consume–about a third of their after-tax income.  In most countries, about 70 percent of GDP goes to consumption; in China only 36 percent is consumed.

A further problem arises from the enormous profits of the State Owned Enterprises.  These are re-invested, rather than distributed as dividends, as would be the case in most places.  The result is the creation of excess productive capacity while consumer incomes are held down.  This is a prescription for disaster at some point.  One solution would be to either privatize the SOEs or to heavily tax their profits and shift them to consumers through payment or social security systems that reduced their own need to save.[2]

[1] “The cracks in China’s engine,” The Week, 8 October 2010, p. 15.

[2] Nouriel Roubini, “The Confucian Consumer,” Newsweek, 24 January 2011, p. 31.